The Aesthetics of Music
Since the beginning of recorded history, writers have tried to explain the power and beauty of the "aesthetic experience". It is difficult to define and even more difficult to describe, but it is easy to remember. It's that special moment when all the world seems right, when everything seems absolutely OK! Sometimes the experience is so intense that it is accompanied by goose bumps, even tears, and a tingling sensation. The arts, music especially, can often create this aesthetic experience.
Plato believed that music could refine the character and preserve good health, but too much music would cause one to be "melted and softened beyond what is good.'' Aristotle held that the aim of art was purification, that music was especially good at drawing off unsocial and destructive impulses into harmless excitement. But he cautioned that too much music was a dangerous thing.
St. Augustine confessed that he had "sinned criminally … being more moved by the singing than by what was sung." He thought music had its place, however, because "by the delights of the ear, the weaker minds may be stimulated to a devotional frame." German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer declared that music was the most powerful of all the arts, because it could immediately elevate one above the strife of Will.
Henri Bergson, a French philosopher, considered musical works to be "records of intuitions". Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, thought that music was a sublimation process through which a composer converted repressions and unfilled wishes into tonal fantasies to express deep desires. Naturalist Charles Darwin theorized that music preceded speech, originally developed to attract and select a mate.
A NEW PHILOSOPHY
All these intellectual opinions are interesting and entertaining. The blunt truth is, however, that music is just an acoustical disturbance in the air. This disturbance affects the tiny bones, fluids, and nerve tissues in human ears, causing chemical and electrical reactions in the brain which make people feel different from how they felt just previous to the sound of that music. No more. No less. But those acoustical disturbances have changed during the course of human history and, in some instances, have changed history.
What the traditional philosophers were trying to explain, of course, was the connection between the music and the emotional results it causes. Three observations. First, musicians create sounds that seem to say what they want to say. Second, listeners seem to understand what the musicians have said. Third, anyone outside this select dialogue might well be completely unaware of what the musicians have said to the listeners.
Indeed, there is often strong disagreement on what message is being sent – between New Age fans and rock fans, jazz buffs and classical audiences, between the same fans in different countries, races, religions, and even between parents and children within any of the above categories.
At times, music has caused riots and destruction – sometimes when things have gotten out of hand at a concert, sometimes when inciting a certain group to violence to protest an inequality. But music has also been used to heal wounds of nations, to bring the plight of the hungry and the oppressed to the attention of the world, and to raise millions of dollars for causes around the globe. By all objective evidence, music does convey something very potent and powerful to people.
Music, as with all other communication – speech, facial expressions, body language, hand gestures, etc. – derives from the culture of its origin. It may be completely meaningless outside that culture. A raised eyebrow means one thing in the Sahara Desert, and something completely different at a cocktail party in New York. A hand gesture that draws a laugh in one culture might provoke violence in another.
It is the same with music. American ears do not easily receive and interpret the music of gong-kettles in traditional Thai orchestras, or the single-stringed bowed spike fiddles of Ethiopia. The sounds seem strange, representing concepts of life different from Western values and attitudes. Not only are the scales, harmonies, and instruments completely different, but the symbolic meaning of the music is almost incomprehensible to listeners outside the culture. Like a speech in a strange language, the physical sounds are clear, but the meaning is not.
Alan Lomax, folklorist and scholar, worked for sixty years to explain why this is the case. In an elaborate system of "cantometrics" (the "measurement" or analysis of song), he recorded, catalogued, and analyzed the song styles of all major ethnic groups. The raw information was codified and matched with information drawn from the Ethnographic Atlas (Murdock, 1962-1967), which provides standardized ratings for subsistence type, family kinship patterns, settlement types, political organization, etc. Very simply, Lomax found that music always reveals and reinforces the lives of the people who are creating and listening to that music. It's a lot more complex than "happy people create happy music." It has to do with attitudes, desires, goals, sexual traditions, sibling patterns, child rearing, mother-child relationships, authority models, ancestor figures, and many other concerns - all told, some 47 separate items.
For example, in complex societies, the songs deliver a lot of musical and verbal information; in simple societies, much less is conveyed. In societies where the powerful leaders are constantly changing, the songs are rhythmically very busy and complicated. In societies where strong leaders seldom lose their power, the opposite is true. In societies dominated by men, a distinct leader is always in charge of the musical events. In societies where women have some voice in what happens, the musical events are much more communal and informal in character. Lomax's monumental studies, as seen particularly in 1968's Folk Song Style and Culture, reveal what music really means, or, perhaps better, what music really does in the various societies of the world.
All evidence seems to support the conclusion Lomax drew from his research: musical taste – musical preference – comes from a host of deep-seated sociocultural attitudes and values. Those attitudes and values derive from ethnic roots, race, national traditions, neighborhood location, religious affiliation, family ties, occupational subgroups, cultural bonding, etc.
Now the strange fact of the matter is simply this – that of the several components in the above mix, the most important is not race, nationality, or ethnic similarity, but cultural bonding.
Parents and their teenage adolescents have the same genes, but the kids live in their own teen culture, so they often have arguments over haircuts, clothing style, leisure time activities, and music. Yes, music. Music is surely one of the most obvious, colorful, and potent of any cultural differences. Time and again through history, music that delights one crowd of people greatly offends another crowd. It is, indeed, a continuous thread that runs through Pop Music, U. S. A.
The "aesthetics of music", then, is really a terribly inexact and misleading term, suggesting some kind of absolute standard of beauty and quality. The inescapable fact is that beauty and quality are culturally determined.
What music does, it does powerfully and immediately. It sends subliminal messages in symbolic sounds and sights. Lomax has established quite convincingly that it is not all that mysterious or abstract at all. It is concrete and predictable, revealing and celebrating the attitudes and values of the culture of its origin.